Any process improvement project requires an investment of resources and most organizations require preparation of an ROI to support such investments.
Projects that do not meet ROI expectations are sometimes declared to be fails but the facts are things can change. All things being equal the obvious desirable state of affairs is to stay the course and exceed ROI expectations but not to the point of diminishing returns.
Suppose you go to great lengths to improve a process and the nature of this process is that it comprises steps or tasks that need to be performed largely in a prescribed sequence, by staff with specific skill sets, and that there is a need for proof of completion in the form perhaps of inspection certificates that vary from one step to the next.
You now have a ‘best practice’ and since there is nothing better than a best practice (at least until you find a way to improve it), the obvious thing to do is encourage consistent use of the best practice.
If the steps along your best practice are not all performed by machines it’s not a good idea to try to enforce the best practice for the simple reason that in the case of other than a simple linear workflow the workflow will NOT be able to anticipate all possible eventualities. Exceptions occur and staff will at times need to perform steps in a different order, skip certain steps, or add steps that are not in the workflow, accordingly the objective is to ‘encourage’ rather than to ‘enforce’.
Now we get to the hard part – how do you encourage staff to be consistent in the performance of tasks that make up a best practice and what’s the purpose anyway of having best practices if people end up not following these?
The point of this article is success with best practices is all about documentation, resource allocation and decision support .
Your process can be undocumented and exist only in the minds of task performers and this clearly is problematic if you want to do the right things, the right way, at the right time, using the right resources.
The next level of sophistication is ‘off line’ documentation comprising flow graphs and written manuals. This provides little comfort at a practical level because staff is typically too busy to refer to the documentation. The material ends up gathering dust in filing cabinets.
Moving on, we have ‘on-line’ documentation. Anyone who has tried to use most HELP systems knows these work best when you know the question that leads directly to the answer you are looking for, otherwise it’s frustrating. And, the HELP you are able to find is context-specific in that it has a singular focus on the specific task you are trying to perform.
Consider now ‘in-line’ documentation. I come in to work, I go to my Orders In Tray and there I see tasks that need to be performed by me for today. The postings are done automatically, by the software system with reference to best practice workflow logic and skill requirements and staff availability. The tasks come to me along with any and all documentation (i.e. certificates that need to be filled in as part of performing tasks). I don’t need to hunt for forms.
With ‘in-line’ best practices I don’t need to worry what the next step is in a discrete process, who should do it (I only get to see tasks that require my attention). And where is not a concern because the system knows from my log-in where I am and will not post tasks that would require I be elsewhere.
When is not a concern because as soon as a staff member completes a workflow task, the next-in-line task immediately posts to the appropriate in-trays of colleagues.
If follows that ‘in-line’ encourages consistency in the performance of work – staff efficiency improves, throughput improves, and errors decrease. You have now moved forward from Business Process Improvement to Business Process Management.
Now, what about deviations from best practices? We indicated earlier that no best practice covers all eventualities so what happens when things are not done according to best practices? The answer is independent background checking (by the software system) at key Process Control Points (PCPs) along best practice workflows takes care of this. PCPs give a bonus benefit in the form of improved compliance with internal and external rules and regulations.
Workflows that are not in-line don’t work and in-line workflows do not work either without system-level background compliance checking.
Depending on the nature of the rules you install at PCPs your software system can impose a soft stop (e.g. simply post a warning) as and when deficiencies are detected or impose a hard-stop where downstream progression from the PCP cannot take place until detected deficiencies have been remedied.
Why strive for ‘In line’? – The simple answer is consistent use of ‘in line’ best practices leads to better outcomes.